Happy Birthday Beethoven!
Today is Ludwig von Beethoven’s 249th birthday, and I want to celebrate one of the great inspirations of my life. I cannot remember a time when Beethoven was not a part of my life. I know, believe me, I know how pretentious this sounds, but it is the truth. My brother was ten and half years older than me, and a gifted pianist. I would often hide behind a chair in the living room and listen to him practice, I even hid there during his lessons. Beethoven was a teacher as well s composer and performer, so every child taking piano lessons plays Beethoven, my brother no exception. As a child born in the sixties, the Peanut gang was
huge part of my life. Schroeder with his iconic bust of Beethoven on his tiny piano playing Moonlight Sonata is an indelible picture from my early years. When I was about ten, there was disco song made from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. (I was such a little nerd, I did not approve of the disco, now it amuses me.)
Beethoven was everywhere, and honestly he still is. Movie soundtracks, commercials , you name it, you can find his music. Today, Beethoven is widely considered the greatest composer of al time and he composed some of his greatest works while totally deaf. What could be worse than a musician losing his hearing?
Beethoven’s childhood was worse, it was an abomination. His father was an abusive alcoholic; his father was also his music teacher. Gifted on both the violin and clavier( the piano, not yet an instrument of note), his father beat him for small mistakes and hesitations. Neighbors talked of the small boy weeping at the clavier (too small for a bench or chair), as his father screamed at him. Bad practices led to being locked in the cellar. Despite this, young Ludwig was performing and composing before he hit double digits, and was supporting the family by performing by age eleven. Where did that grit come from? How was he able to create such beauty from the ashes of a loveless, horrific childhood.
Beethoven also suffered from many physical maladies: colitis, arthritis, abscesses, arterial disease, and liver problems. He contracted both small pox and typhus as a child, which was a probable cause of hearing loss.
He was socially awkward; horribly shy , with a very bad, often uncontrolled temper. He never married or had children, but had several unrequited love affairs with women, that resulted in beautiful music, but no relationships. He was clearly not an easy person, often unapologetically writing music that was too difficult for the person who commissioned it. In social situations Beethoven was often lost in his own thoughts, and burgeoning musical ideas.
Not easy at all, but oh the music*. Do yourself a favor and listen to the pieces on this link, they are a beautiful representation of who Beethoven is. As I am writing this I am listening to the second movement of his Seventh symphony. Legend has it that he wrote this movement when he knew that he would soon be completely deaf, and wanted to write an ode to his ears; it is the most beautiful goodbye , heartbreaking as individual Instruments and sections enter; transcendent in their unison. Or about knowing that Beethoven was completely deaf when he wrote the ninth symphony ( the first symphony to utilize choral work). When he conducted the premiere, one of the musicians got up, gently turned him around so he could see the standing , cheering , and wildly applauding audience..... oh the bittersweet joy he must have felt. Beethoven was also the first composer to create works for the piano. To this day I associate piano lessons with Fur Elise and other works, because as a teacher he composed works for his students... Fur Elise-For Elise.....
Yet, the piano was a barely used instrument before Beethoven. Lonely, misunderstood, often grouchy, yet a total visionary. I like to believe the music made up for all the rest of the misery. So back to my plan for the 2020 Beethoven project. I have started playing piano again. And I am terrible, and yes I regret quitting lessons when I was 14 (parents right , yet again). I have started to play again to be in the same space as my students. I want to remember and feel
how hard it is to learn new things and how boring some exercises are, the Hanon finger
exercise book is the equivalent to the most perfectly constructed ballet barre. I am going to practice everyday, ( or close to it), with the idea of playing Beethoven all year and building up to the Moonlight Sonata which I will start on my birthday in July, and be ready to play next year on Beethoven’s 250 birthday. It does not have to be perfect, it might not be beautiful but I will give it my all. And that is all I ask of my students. The beauty is in the process, the goal is secondary. So when I see a student struggling I will applaud the grit that it takes to keep going, and applaud the victories great and small. And I will try to give that patience to myself, because I really am terrible :).
In a nod to Schroeder I got a Beethoven Bobble head for my piano. You can see Hooper playing Moonlight Sonata( a talented dog), then see notice the bobble head and then look at me. Hooper realizes that the bobble head is hilarious and also quite terrible. A failure to look at the dimensions , had me unaware of its too large size. In addition, if you zoom in you will notice that he looks more like an angry Ben Affleck than Beethoven, and the hair is a lavenderesque grey. All in all, the bobble head is quite awful, but a failure to make the Amazon return has Ludwig/ Ben living on the digital piano.
But somehow, I think Beethoven would approve. It is not quite right, but makes me laugh. In so many ways, Beethoven was not quite right, and perhaps that is why his genius is still revolutionary today. Sometimes we all have to rise above what has been given to us, and if we are lucky something beautiful (or funny) comes from it.
Happy Beethoven Day!